My Publishing Nightmare – the story of a book deal gone bad (Part 3)

Parts one and two of this blog series covered what happened when I signed a contract with a publisher for my novel and it turned out badly, with a product I was unhappy with, poor sales and a deteriorating relationship with the publisher, and then my initial, unsuccessful attempts to retrieve my rights to the book. The publisher had told me that the only way I would get my book back was to pay what amounted to a couple of thousand pounds – vastly more than I had made from it.

Unlike in the first two parts, there isn’t a lot in the way of advice and lessons in Part 3 until the end. The reason for this is that, for the most part, all my mistakes had already been made, and if you get to this point, your options are limited. As before, advice is bulleted, mistakes I made are in bold, and advice from the whole experience is summed up at the end.

I had kept in touch with some of the people who had left the publisher but I was personally still on good terms with. About four years after the book was published, and perhaps a year after the exodus of staff that had brought things to crisis point, one of them mentioned to me that another author had got their rights back, thanks to a legal firm operating in the same region as the publisher. The reasons I hadn’t seriously considered this before were set out in Part 2, but in short these were the anticipated cost and the revelation that it may not even be possible to take legal action against someone in a different jurisdiction.

I contacted the law firm, not thinking that I had any chance of being able to afford their services, and almost did so just to rule it out. They were, however, extremely understanding, and sensitive to the fact that authors in this position don’t necessarily have a lot of money. They were not only willing to take my case, but seemed genuinely to be on my side. I immediately got the sense that they would fight my corner. They indicated that they would give me a reasonable rate, and not go beyond a set amount without my agreement. If it got too expensive, I’d have to walk away, and they were OK with that.

In addition, they offered various options to help keep the cost down. One of these was that if other authors from the same publisher in a similar position, working on our cases at the same time would enable the firm to combine some of the work needed. It was more complicated than that, but, for example, a single version of a letter could be drafted and tailored to our individual circumstances, rather than writing a whole new letter each. With lawyers of course, time is literally money, and time saved is money saved.

I knew of another author in the same boat as I was, so I discussed it with them and they decided to go for it too. The law firm agreed to deal with us at the same time. In fact, this author had fallen foul of the ‘competitive book’ clause – the clause that says if you want to publish a book that might in any way compete with the book in the contract, you had to offer first refusal to the publisher. This author had self-published several more books in the same series, only to be approached by the publisher indicating that they thought they should be able to publish them. As I understand it, the publisher didn’t push this particular point when the author resisted, but it’s another example of how as an author you might be signing away more than you think you are.

Signing up with the law firm still required a substantial outlay of funds, despite their generosity in keeping costs down wherever possible. I had to put up a retainer, which, ironically, was around the same amount that the publisher told me it would cost to buy me out of my contract. I consoled myself that at least I wouldn’t end up spending any more. On the other hand, I might end up paying what the publishers had demanded and not getting my book back. Still, I was determined not to buckle and pay the money for my rights. It was my book, the publisher had not shown good faith and was doing nothing to justify its custodianship of the rights to it. I was entitled to get the rights back. Ultimately I would rather pay a lawyer than feed money to the publisher that they had done nothing to earn.

The first step was to talk to the lawyer assigned to my case. This was a relatively junior lawyer whose time was more affordable than the partner I had initially dealt with. Even so, ‘my’ lawyer was diligent, eager and clued up. We had several phone conversations to set out the details of my situation, and I emailed them as much relevant information as I could put my hands on. I trawled through emails, bank and PayPal accounts (payments switched rather haphazardly between cheques and online payments), paper records, and assembled as detailed a record as was possible to help catalogue missed or late payments, missing or late royalty statements, rude and unhelpful emails, obstructive behaviour and so on. I also included a list of all the work I’d done to market the book, and the money I had spent in so doing.

If I’d been better organised, I’d have kept a proper file of all my dealings with the publisher, including recording the dates of cheques and statements received in the post, and dates of postmarks on the envelopes. I had a lot of the correspondence, but not everything, and it took a while to chase it all down.

  • I’d recommend any writer keeps a full set of records, including all correspondence with their publisher, well organised, as a matter of course. Even if your publisher is staffed by actual angels and 75% of their authors win the Nobel Prize for Literature, keeping proper records will serve you well. (And for heaven’s sake, when you sign and date your contract to return it, take a copy)

My lawyer managed to wade through all of this and work it into some semblance of a case. We were able to establish, though helpful people who knew how small presses with ebook/Print on Demand (PoD) operations worked, and more importantly, what their costs and margins were. We were able to establish with some accuracy, what the book had cost to produce (which was rather less than the figure stated by the publisher) and how much it had earned for them in the years it had been on sale.

It was then a question of negotiation. The publisher once again accused me of failing to put the work in to market my book. They seemed to be responding to the publisher the same way they had responded to me – initially ignoring, then being evasive, and, finally, with rudeness. I don’t know this for sure, but it seemed to me as though the publisher had not retained a lawyer themselves but were just dealing directly with mine.

The negotiation went back and forth. The lawyers’ initial offer was rejected. I stopped daring to hope. The publisher might have decided to stonewall in the hope that I ran out of money or patience.

To my immense relief, the next offer was accepted. This was paid out of the retainer I had lodged with the lawyer. To my even greater relief and gratitude, the law firm waived a number of the billable activities. I ended up getting just under half my retainer back. This was better than I had dared hope for.

I then had an anxious wait to see if the publisher would actually hold up their end of the bargain – remove my book from sale, and the website, and send me written confirmation that the contract had been terminated. Would I have to go back to the lawyers to put more pressure on? But, after more hanging around, they pulled the book and wrote to me telling me I was free.

I was, of course, not back to square one. I had lost money. I had squandered a book that should have done better. I had expended time and mental energy that I would never get back.

I was, however, a hell of a lot better informed about publishing than I had been. I was a few years older and a good deal wiser.

  • You cannot go back to being unpublished, and being unpublished is better than being badly published.

I can’t help feeling regret at the fate of my novel. It deserved better. I’m still proud of it, and I don’t think it reflected the book’s value that it sank without trace and ended up costing me far more than I’ll ever make from it.

I know how tempting it is to sign a contract if someone is waving one in front of you. That little squiggle of a pen that turns you from ordinary mortal into PUBLISHED AUTHOR. I’ve seen it many times – that person who’s been offered a contract and everyone’s telling them not to sign until they’ve had it checked out, and you can see that person’s fear that they’re looking a gift horse in the mouth, they’re going to scare the publisher away and they might never get the chance again, and that little devil on their shoulder is saying ‘go on, sign it, how bad can it be?’

It can be this bad. You might lose that book that you slaved over, that you’re proud of, and that you think deserves better. You might lose it to someone who doesn’t care but makes a few quid from it every now and then.

You might never have the rights again to your book as long as you live.

  • Bear in mind that as many problems can be caused by what isn’t in the contract as what is. Don’t give your chips to someone who insists on holding the cards.
  • Join the SoA or the equivalent body in your country. Have the contract checked by professionals. Make sure there are exits, and you have recourse if the publisher misbehaves, and all that. And if something – anything – isn’t right, walk the hell away.
  • Because not being published (yet) is not a bad state, and in some respects it’s more positive than neutral.
  • You only get one shot to be a debut novelist. There are a lot of opportunities that are open to writers of first novels that are not open with subsequent works – competitions, grants, mentoring deals, some publication deals. There are opportunities that are open to unpublished writers.

I’m going to write that again in block caps for those at the back. YOU ONLY GET ONE SHOT TO BE A DEBUT NOVELIST. You owe it to yourself not to have an unworthy publisher blow it for you.

Disclaimer, disclaimer – this is only one small press. There are lots of great small presses out there, who greet their neighours warmly and feel bad when there’s an injured dog on the television. It’s just one case. But just this one case alone affected many authors and hundreds of books. And it is not unique. I’ve had a better experiences since. It’s unusual for everything to go smoothly in any publishing endeavour, of course, but there’s a huge difference between publishers who are competent and have the best intentions, and the alternative.

In fact, there are many excellent small presses. I find the term to be not terribly useful as it can extend from what’s essentially a one-man band to a traditional publisher in miniature, with a board of directors and a professional staff of perhaps ten or twenty. I’ve heard very good things about, say, Louise Walters Books, at the smaller end of the scale, and Coffee House Publishing at the larger end. Outfits like Severed Press give genre fans exactly what they want with huge social media pull and unfailingly striking, professional-looking designs. Again, this comes down to doing your research.

Second disclaimer – maybe my book was just a bad book, and this is why it didn’t do well. I don’t think it is a bad book, personally, and the reviews from neutral sources were overwhelmingly positive. A large newspaper said it was ‘impossible to put down’, and the main genre society described it as ‘a fast-paced thriller with interesting characters’ and ‘a fun read’. The vast majority of Amazon and Goodreads reviews were four- and five-star. One or two people didn’t enjoy it, but the vast majority did, and many enjoyed it a lot. In any case, I might have written a terrible book, and still not deserved to have it cost me what it did, financially and emotionally.

So please, please consider all the angles very carefully before you sign on the dotted line. Never sign something just to get your book out there. You need to go into any contact with a publisher not just with your eyes open, but the understanding of what your eyes are seeing.

Some things you might consider before you submit your book:

  • Check the AbsoluteWrite ‘Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check’ forums to see what people are saying about particular publishers. If there are a number of negative comments, take positive comments with a pinch of salt. It hurts to say it, but authors can sometimes get a case of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ with a publisher that isn’t treating them or other authors well, and there’s nothing to stop unscrupulous publishers posting their own comments.
  • Look at as many reviews as you can find of that publisher’s books. Are they accepting substandard works? Are there mentions of poor editing, for example? Are there only a few reviews for each title (suggesting they haven’t had much reach)? Are most of the existing reviews suspiciously positive? Are the positive reviews vague as if, say, someone has been told to review the book without much more than glancing at it?
  • Look at cover designs for as many of that publisher’s books as you can find. As a reader, are they likely to attract you to read those books. Do they look professional? Are some a lot better than others?
  • If you can, talk to authors who are published by the outfit you’re considering
  • Look at their marketing activities. Do they have a big social media presence? Is their website professional and updated frequently? What are they doing to help promote the books they are publishing?
  • Have they won any industry awards? Are they real industry awards?

And after you submit your book:

  • Join the Society of Authors, or the equivalent in your country, and have them look over any contracts you are offered
  • DO NOT agree to demands to return a signed contract by return of post. Any publisher worth their salt will give you time to consider a contract and have it checked. Some may try this on, but if they make it a condition of the offer, then walk away and consider you’ve had a lucky escape
  • Do not be afraid to negotiate. Some publishers will tell you that their contracts are standard and all their authors sign them. THEY ARE LYING. Any contract can, and should be tailored. Work out what you want from a contract and stick to your guns. If the publisher is not prepared to meet reasonable requests, or even meet you half way, then walk away. (Incidentally, it’s surprising how flexible a previously unbending publisher will become when faced with an author who is genuinely prepared to withdraw the book rather than sign a bad contract)
  • Don’t sign away rights that the publisher isn’t prepared to do any work to exploit. E.g. most will try to grab film, TV and foreign language rights, in the vague expectation that if the book becomes a hit, Hollywood will come knocking and they can make a packet from the rights without lifting a finger
  • Keep a copy of the signed contract and proof of when you signed and sent it. Keep (and file) ALL correspondence with the publisher, including a log of any telephone conversations.
  • If in doubt, walk away.

If my experiences are worth anything, it should be that other aspiring authors take a little more care than they otherwise might. If a publisher doesn’t love a book the way you do, if they can’t bring much to the table other than simply publishing the book, they aren’t worth your creativity. Find a publisher who will add value – not one that will do the bare minimum and berate you for not doing their job for them.

Good luck!

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 2 here

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